BY JESSICA LI
Livingston High School, '16
2015 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors List
Everything starts muggy and hot, sticky and soft, the dead center of August like the pit of an avocado. In the middle of the night, Kristi thinks about how to begin, how to structure meaning from the archives of her mind. For every streetlight they pass, Kristi thinks about one thing – an internal exchange of nothing for nothing. Her mother in her Shirley Temple red bathrobe. Her teacher crusading the Bible as the health class textbook.
Her two friends Lisa and Katie are very nice to her, but they sit together like babies webbed in a womb, Lisa in the driver’s seat and Katie shotgun applying red lipstick for no reason. Kristi hangs out with them because she can’t imagine doing anything else: The Everly Brothers are crooning on the radio in Lisa’s car, in another dimension, into the headlights streaming the path of least resistance on the highway. She would very much like to know where she is going, but she doesn’t ask. They talk enough for three people.
When she is home, it is late enough to hear her own thoughts in the deadness of her street. She slams through the door like a mouse but her mother still hears her, Shirley Temple red bathrobe still draped over her body, waiting for her, or maybe her husband, or maybe something else. She clutches the thinning fabric to her bosom as she walks downstairs to chastise her daughter.
Kristi’s mother wishes Kristi could be more like her brother, Jack. Kristi knows she thinks about this a lot, the thought idling in her head; hair pinned up with cheap curlers and a mole on her cheek drawn in with department store eyeliner. Jack still has baby fat in his cheeks and freckles that covers his white face and skin. He has his father’s corkscrew curls and hatred for Commies. He has a girlfriend, a pretty thing four years younger than him, a child, a pretty little child.
Kristi likes her. Her name is Carly, and she has purple braces and a cute little smile and she just started high school, still excited and bumbling and stuttering over her sentences, her stories quick and shallow, like swallowing a gulp of water too fast. A pale Irish girl with skin so light her veins wink and glimmer.
She is very happy with Jack. She had never memorized her multiplication tables but she knows Jack is cool; he graduated high school a year ago as a B-grade football player and his weak health examination was the only obstacle keeping him from going to Vietnam. He has posters of B-29 aircraft carriers and soldiers with American flags faded in the background. He studies military strategies and thinks one day war will save him from wherever he is now.
He ignores her enough to make her adore him. When he pays attention, he takes her to his room and they don’t come out for a while, the whimpers drifting through the thin walls of their modest suburban house. Kristi tries not to listen. She tries not to hear the blood she somehow seems to smell.
“Are you okay?” she asks when she sees the child come out, flushed a Shirley Temple red. The red in her history textbooks, a deep red, a violent red.
Carly is always okay, she says.
“I’d’ve killed those Japs ten years ago,” he says at the dinner table one night. He is the pride of Kristi’s mother.
“So much like your father,” she says, the subject in question coincidentally on another business trip in a remote part of South America. She beams.
Kristi sits in health class and tries to tape her eyes up with her fingers. Mrs. Heeley smells like baby oil and orthopedic shoes, but she is a twenty-four year old woman who is a child, just like them. She wears a little cross necklace and says “the s-word,” her shrewd little eyes eyeing every girl as if each one had a secret hidden in her thighs.
She draws a crude, cartoon-like drawing on the board, a strangely cylindrical object with two deflated wings. An alien object, a phantom limb in their bodies they never dared to explore. The blood that comes out and floods their dreams is to be hidden away and never discussed, she says. The itchiness and ache and hunger – an animal to be put down, she says. There is no mercy for girls, she says.
Mrs. Heeley doesn’t seem to like anything much, but she really doesn’t like Suzie Chen. She calls on her in class when her head is facedown on the black table, trying to cool her forehead in the summer heat. She corrects her even when she is right, correctly labeling the first cardinal rule: Do not engage in the s-word.
“Wrong,” she sneers. “You’re always wrong.” Suzie’s small black eyes shrink even more.
Kristi looks at the back of her black head, her thin hair frizzing up in the humidity. She wonders if even Suzie Chen has the cylindrical object with two deflated wings inside her too.
Kristi’s grandfather talks too much about the war. His skin is saturated with yellow and brown spots and a visceral hatred for what, Kristi is not too sure. But his eyes gleam listlessly when he talks about the war, the bodies of enemies or allies (he wasn’t sure) piling in the trenches, the man who ate nothing but starch for three days when rations were low, the feeling of shooting his first man, who was, coincidentally, a black man serving on their side. He said it still felt good. A good tension reliever.
“And you know what’d we do for fun sometimes?” he would laugh, his hands betraying a slight tremor. “We’d get handsy with the nurses, touch ‘em a little bit. Nothing they didn’t like, though. Just being there, surrounded by death, there was nothing they couldn’t handle after a while.”
Despite everything, Lisa and Katie try their best to be beautiful all the time. Kristi thinks they are womanly, and graceful, their tight dresses expounding every curve and crevice on their bodies, but in a tasteful way, a tempting but conservative way. God forbid they are prudish. God forbid they are promiscuous. There is no mercy for girls, she remembers.
The school bathroom smells like smoke and hair gunk, sanitary napkins and hormones they’re not allowed to have.
“Maybe you’re a late bloomer,” says Lisa, patting her face with a pale powder that made her white skin look whiter. “You just don’t get it yet.”
“We’ll teach you someday,” says Katie, lining her eyes with black ink, so as to make her eyes look wider, nothing like Suzie Chen’s. “How to be a girl.”
Kristi decides she would like that. There is nothing better to do, anyway. She closes her eyes and inhales the fumes that wrap around her body, hugging her, reminding her, chastising her.
Jessica Li is a seventeen-year-old junior at Livingston High School in New Jersey. Her prose and poetry have been commended by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the Bennington College Young Writers Awards, the Eichner Awards for Young Writers, the Leonard Milberg Poetry Prize, and more. She also serves as a Co-Editor-in-Chief of her school’s literary magazine, seeking to promote the power of creative writing in her community.